Can You Sell Lean to Sales People?


Companies that achieve success with Lean in Operations are eager to apply these same principles to other parts of their organization in hopes of gaining similar benefits and efficiencies. Sales, however, is an area that has remained resistant to adopting Lean principles. Revenue generation is the lifeblood of companies and the stakes are high when it comes to making significant changes to traditional sales processes.

The Situation

This is the real-life story of one global systems integrator’s experience in taking Lean thinking to its sales department and the success that followed. LeanCo, as we will call it here, is headquartered in the US and creates and sells high value technology to other companies to facilitate the handling of physical cash. The company was founded in the late 1990’s and grew from a startup operation to over $100m in revenue and more than 500 employees worldwide.

LeanCo started on a Lean journey in 2005 in order to improve its manufacturing processes. The company was vertically integrated with its own R&D, manufacturing, sales and service of complex hardware and software systems for banking and retail customers. The focus on Lean improvements yielded dramatic results on the assembly floor. The company won an award for its “Lean Launchpad” project where one production line more than tripled its throughput, and reduced the defect rate, without increasing the number of operators.

Following success in the production environment, the company began to work on improving office processes, specifically customer service and accounting, with very favorable results.

The Catalyst for Change

The company had achieved competence in building and delivering its solutions, and as a consequence there was excess production capacity. Management felt that market conditions were primed for faster growth, but the sales team was not producing a large enough flow of orders to keep production fully booked. 

At that time, LeanCo was operating with a traditional B2B field sales force. The company’s market share had remained fairly constant, but growth was slower than expected. Taking advantage of this strong belief that faster growth was possible, the sales department embarked on a project to reimagine the entire sales approach. Emboldened by prior Lean success in other parts of the company, the management team engaged in a project to rethink the work of sales.

In preparing for this project, a coach was engaged in 2012 to help with the task of evaluating and re-engineering the way LeanCo went about selling. The coach worked with the management team and sales leadership to better define the problems, as well as to begin creating the path to operationalizing a new sales process.

Understanding the Current State

Management started with an open mind and was willing to make fundamental changes to the sales department. After preliminary planning and discovery sessions, a workshop with the sales team was scheduled to focus on the direct sales team within the US territory.


Prior to the workshop, baseline metrics were captured for the number of Meaningful Sales Interactions (MSI’s) conducted each week by each of the eight sales people.  MSI’s were defined as, “any face to face meeting with the prospect that the sales opportunity could be advanced to the next stage in the process.” Other data was also gathered for the number of open opportunities, sales cycle time in days, as well as actual revenue generated per sales person.

The US territory had been divided into geographic areas with a total of eight sales people assigned to the territories. Looking at data from the previous two quarters, it was determined that the sales people were each conducting an average of two MSI’s per week; averaging 16 MSI’s per week for the whole team. While this seemed shockingly low to the management team, it became clear that this was not an unusual situation if the total picture of a sales person’s activity, as well as all of the “not-so-meaningful”, yet necessary, interactions were taken into consideration to get to that one MSI. They found that the two per week average was also in keeping with other industry’s field sales teams.

 Frustrations Across the Board

  1. The volume of new opportunities was not growing fast enough to deliver growth expectations. The velocity of the entire model did not produce the revenue that management believed was attainable in the strong market that existed for LeanCo’s products.
  2. The sales team was frustrated by difficulty in finding new opportunities. Prospecting activities were sporadic and not consistent enough to generate a constant source of new opportunities. Sales people were busy (with the full set of activities) and feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work required to move deals through the pipeline stages. 
  3. Management was frustrated with the lack of visibility into the sales funnel and with the inconsistent deal volumes. Everyone was engaged in finger-pointing and blaming others for the lack of leads and slow sales cycles.

Getting to the Bottom of Things

First it was necessary to understand the different types of activities that were being conducted by each sales person. Real data was difficult to obtain because of the constant struggle to keep the CRM current. It was also difficult to evaluate the priority and true potential of each opportunity. Forecasting and understanding the pipeline was complex, requiring a lot of energy each week by the entire sales team. 

The data that was collected revealed high degrees of variability in the number of MSI’s conducted per week by each sales person. While some weeks were filled with MSI’s, many others were filled with other activities related to managing opportunities and prospecting.

Like most traditional sales models, sales people were responsible for all aspects of the sales cycle including prospecting, setting appointments, managing opportunities, qualifying, updating the CRM, conducting demos & pilots, creating proposals & ROI analyses, negotiating deals and managing repeat business. Sales people maintained that these activities prevented them from focusing on moving opportunities along at an optimal pace.

Opportunities progressed only as fast as sales people were able to reconnect with prospects to move the deals forward. Prospecting activities had to be worked into an already busy schedule. As a result, the number of new opportunities grew slowly; based on each person’s own ability to hunt and engage.

Practical matters, such as having to travel long distances within each territory, were also an impediment. Additionally, sales people often overworked their existing opportunities in hopes of eventually closing a sale. Often, as a result of misplaced optimism, they continued to work a deal in spite of minimal customer interest. This hope of a future sale and commission check led to inaccurate pipeline data, wasted sales resources, and annoyed customers.

Deeper Dive into Non-Sales Activities

It was determined that only sales people could do certain activities well, but other more administrative duties could be done by others to allow more time for MSI’s. Non-sales activities were identified, and plans began to take shape to move these tasks into centralized, home-office roles. This list included activities such as confirming solution requirements, managing existing orders, planning for demos, and internal communications concerning product availability and implementation capabilities.

The skill set required to manage an existing client was also found to be different than that required to achieve a new sale. This was addressed by separating those responsibilities and moving the management of existing clients to the Customer Service team.

Through close observation of where people actually spent their time, the consequences and root causes of missed opportunities became clearer. These became focal points for brainstorming potential improvements. Potential countermeasures were hypothesized and planned into the new system which could keep sales people focused on the value-added, Meaningful Sales Interactions. Ultimatley, he entire value stream of the sales process was also changed to enable the sales team to close more deals faster.

ObservationConsequencesRoot Cause Identified
A. Inconsistant Propecting

Sales people struggle to conduct prospecting activities in a consistant manner.

The funnel grew at an irregular rate in a "feast or famine" mode and sales people did not have a steady stream of new opportunites to work on. Sales people put off prospecting until absolutly necessary, due to all the urgent activites needed to progress deals through the sales stages.
B. Delays in Follow Up

Follow up customer meetings often occurred 2-4 weeks after an initial meeting.

Customers would cool off during this time, lose interest, begin to work with a competitor, or move on to another project that mgiht take on a higher priority. Sales people's calendars were booked in advance in such a way that getting back to the customer had to wait for an open calendar spot.
C. Overworked Opportunites

Sales people worked on low probability deals a long time, some over a year, and remained falsey optimistic about the chance of closing.

Sales people did not move on to prospecting new deals or following up with other opportunities. The funnel became filled with very old, unlikely opportunities and forecasting became less accurate. Sales people were "overworking" these deals rather than creating new opportunities. Management did not put the right focus on coaching to a point of closure faster. Sales people were reluctant to give up on a deal because of the hope of earning a commission on it someday. New leads were scarce and difficult to create.
D. Delays in Generating Proposals

It often took sales people a wek or more to prepare proposals.

Slow proposal delivery gave the opportunity for prospects to cool off, be approached by competitors, or question the level of interest from the company's sales person. Creating proposals took hours of work and involved analysis and solution development with input required from other departments. Due to their heavy travel schedules and other work requirements, sales people had trouble coordinating all of these inputs and completing this work in an efficient manner.
E. Time Spent on Solution Development

Sales People spent mulitple days on-site doing analysis with customers and working on developing the right solution set for each customer.

 This on-site observation and analysis kep the sales people away from other opportunities for 1-3 days while visiting bank branches, doing discovery sessions, and developing the right solution set.  Sales people had to do this work in order to move the deal forward, even if it meant not being available to work on other sales opportunities.
F. Delays in Closing Proposals

Proposals remained open for long periods of time, and the pipline normally bulged in size at the Proposal stage.

 Customers would go "quiet" after receiving a proposal, with sales people having to spend a lot of time chasing them for a response. The sales person was the company's only contact with the customer which meant that if anything went wrong during this phase, there was not another clear path to re-approach the customer. Delays, questions, competitors, personality differences, could all impact the ability for the sales person to get through for a response to the proposal. 
G. Non-Sales Account Management Activities

Sales people visisted existing customersx on a regular basis, to maintain relationships, in hopes of winning future business.

 Sales people scheduled account visits to their travel, even when there was not an opportunity for new sales. This diverted sales capacity from working on new or existing opportunities.  Sales people were more comfortable visiting with existing customers than prospecting new ones, and the "ownership" of the customer relationship was with the individual sales person. The hope of repeat order, and the resulting commission, kept them felling justified in this thinking.
H. Commission Compensation Created Sub-Obtimized Behavior

Sales people acted as autonomous agents with actions not always aligned to company goals.

 Sales people were fiercely protective of each potential sale and interrupted or circumvented standard operational processes if they perceived any risk to the deal. Timing of sales and deliveries were subject to mainipulation in order to maximize compensation plans.  Risk of loss of income created an enviornment where sales people were actually incentivized, by design, to act in their own best interest, above that of the team and overall company.

 New Sales Process Design and Flow

Based on problems that were uncovered during the observation and brainstorming phases of the project, changes to the sales process were developed and tested to see if they would actually result in eliminating delays and in creating a more even flow of sales activities. The goal was to speed up the sales cycle and give customers what they needed as soon as the customer was ready to take the next step, while not overworking them. 

New Sales Flow

The view was adopted that sales is a continuum of activities that can be handled by different people, rather than a single sales role. Design principles, or themes, were also adopted to help guide the work of the whole team, such as, “responding very fast to customers significantly improves the conversion rate,” and “only do in the field what must be done in the field,” to guide the way work was allocated to all members of the team.

The countermeasures to the causes of the problems were baked into the new roles and responsibilities. This process was not unlike the one-piece flow implemented on the factory floor where people would each perform their tasks within Takt Time and pass it on to the next person. This created the advantage of each person doing what they were best at, keeping value flowing through the line, and making non-standard work-in-process very visible. 

New roles were designed to create this even flow of work through the entire sales cycle, replacing the concept of artisanal salespeople handling all aspects of the sale. .


The new roles were designed to have a clear output for the next person’s role, so that the sales process could be measured and understood as it passed through the stages of the sale. 

RoleResponsibilityOutput to downstream roles
Marketing Department To create marketing campains to generate demand for products

Executable Campaigns (To Promotions)

Promotions Coordinator To execute campaigns to generate leads Leads (to Sales Coordinator)
Sales Coordinator To connect with leads to schedule introductory sales meetings (MSI's) and to manage the flow of opportunities through the pipeline

Meetings Scheduled (for Field Sales)

Opportuity Status (To Sales Manager)

Field Sales

To meet with customers to determine interest, budget, timeframe and authority:

To negotiate and close commerical agreements with customers

Solutions Development Workshops Scheduled (for Project Analysis)

Purchase Orders
(to Sales Coordinators/Acct Managers)

Project Analyst To performneeds & ROI analysis, conduct Solution Development Workshops, specifiy solution, interact with other departments and craft solcution proposals Customer facing ROI Analysis & Solution Proposals (to Field Sales to present to Customers)
Project Anaylist Lead To coordinate, train and lead Solution Development Workshops continuous improvement Management of capacity, availabity and effectiveness of this team
US Sales Leader To monitor opportunity pipline, coach all team members, approve special product or pricing, and set priorites for sales goals

Management of sales team's overall effectiveness

Sales Forcast (to Management Team)


Countermeasures for Sales Problems

Inconsistent Prospecting (Fig 2: A)

To solve the problem of inconsistent lead generation, sales people were relieved of the responsibility of finding new prospects. All promotional and lead generating activities were transitioned into the home office and handled by a single person in the new role of Promotions Coordinator, who was moved from the Marketing Department onto the Sales Team. Leads were mass generated by the Promotions Coordinator through a coordinated process with the Marketing team.

Delays in Follow Up (Fig 2: B)

To address the delays in setting meetings, the Sales Coordinator role was created. Each field sales person was paired with a dedicated Sales Coordinator, whose job was to set and confirm all appointments. The task of converting leads to opportunities was moved from the Field Sales role to this new role. The ownership of the Field Sales person’s calendar was also moved to the Sales Coordinator, so that appointments could be scheduled in the most efficient manner.

To further streamline the work, Field Sales people were no longer responsible for entering data into the CRM. As you can imagine, this particular change was welcomed by most Field Sales personnel. Instead, they communicated with the Sales Coordinator after every sales interaction and the management of opportunity stages and CRM data entry became the sole responsibility of the Sales Coordinator. They monitored all activities and confirmed that each next step in the sales process was planned and executed in a timely manner. This gave the Sales Manager the ability to work directly with the Sales Coordinators to manage the flow of opportunities and know that the CRM was up to date on every deal.

Overworking Opportunities (Fig 2: C)

The Sales Manager took ownership of monitoring the validity of all open opportunities and to address salespeople overworking low probability deals. Through a weekly process, the Sales Manager and Sales Coordinator reviewed every opportunity to ensure standards were met to keep it as an active opportunity, including the proper level of customer engagement with a defined date for the next action. Field Sales people were relieved of the review process, which created more available time for them to conduct customer facing sales activities.

The Sales Manager could then work directly with each Field Sales person on a highly focused basis only for problem deals, coaching, and development.

Delays in Generating Proposals (Fig 2:D)

To address delays in preparing proposals, the solution development work and generating of proposals was moved to the new Project Analyst role that was created to handle pre-sales work.

Time Spent on Solution Development (Fig 2: E)

These Project Analysts also took on detailed, intensive work, such as time & motion studies, process analysis, ROI calculation and working with technical services on system requirements that was previously done by the Field Sales people. As a result of focusing on this one area of work, these analysts became better equipped and more expert in the specialized skill of solution development and proposal generation.

Delays in Delivering Proposals (Fig 2: F)

Because the Project Analysts worked as a team, workloads could be balanced across all opportunities that needed solution development work or proposals. Excess capacity was planned for this group in order to ensure their immediate availability to work with a new opportunity.

This allowed the Field Sales team to have confidence that a proposal could be generated within a specified time frame (one week was the target) that included findings from an onsite workshop and a detailed ROI analysis. With this confidence, the Sales Coordinator could schedule follow up meetings to present the proposal immediately following the Field Sales meeting and work to ensure all the customer decision makers would be present.

Non-Sales Account Management Activities (Fig 2: G)

Previously, the sales people held the responsibility for the overall customer relationship and felt obligated to maintain regular contact with each existing customer. The possibility of a repeat order was a rational excuse to spend time visiting with these customers, even when there was no immediate sales opportunity.

Under the new sales process, the ownership of the customer account moved from the sales person onto the Customer Service team who was better equipped to maintain regular contact and provide valuable performance data to the customer. The Customer Service team was tasked with “soft prospecting,” where they would listen for any new sales opportunity and inquire about potential growth and then convey this back to the Sales Coordinator to create a new, real sales opportunity to be processed.

Goals and Filling Roles for New Process

To grow sales volumes, achieving more MSI’s became the leading indicator of future success. A target of 40 MSI’s per week was established, based on the ability of the Marketing and Promotions roles to generate enough leads to keep the Field Sales people fully booked. This was two and a half times higher than the prior average of 16 MSI’s per week across all eight sales people. Surprisingly, it was determined that just two Field Sales people were needed to meet the target of 40 MSI’s per week.

Good sales people in a traditional model are able to manage all aspects of the sales process, but no sales person excels at every part of the sales process. In order to best fill the newly created roles, management worked to identify the particular skills of each person on the team and worked to put them in the right role going forward.

The two individuals were selected for the Field Sales role based on their aptitude for customer facing presentations and ability to travel extensively. The remaining sales people were placed into the Project Analyst roles and new employees were hired to fill the Sales Coordinator roles.

An Unexpected Benefit

A strength of the new process was the ability to deal with the unexpected departure of an employee. In the old model, the loss of a sales person would have been catastrophic. A whole sales territory can go “dark” while finding a replacement, onboarding, and getting them up to speed. Within the first three months of implementing the new process, one of the two Field Sales people decided to leave the company to join an old friend at another company. The Sales Manager was able to tap one of the Project Analysts to fill the vacated Field Sales role. Working as a team, it took less than an hour for all of the opportunities to be transitioned to the new salesperson. The existing Sales Coordinator simply started working with this new person and there was no loss of knowledge, time, or momentum.

Compensation Model Change

The Sales People’s compensation was changed from a base-plus commission model to a salary-based model, with a team-based bonus. This shift was perhaps the most controversial and counterintuitive of the changes that were made. Our coach was a proponent of doing away with individual commission and the resultant sub-optimization of the system. His guidance was critical to the team in reaching this controversial conclusion.

The management team was aware of various sub-optimized behaviors within the sales team, but a closer look at compensation-driven behaviors revealed some surprises.  The hope of earning sales commissions helped create the tendency of salespeople to hold onto deals longer than they should, taking time away from better prospects. In some cases, even the timing of the true customer demand was manipulated to maximize their compensation plan.

Commissioned sales people tend to act like autonomous agents, much like artisans in a piece-work business model. Because of being paid commission based on their own results, they felt they were best positioned to decide how to manage their time, priorities and selling behaviors.  It was discovered that people would make very focused decisions based on what they perceived would be best for them individually within each month – which is not necessarily the same thing as achieving the best overall sales performance for the company or running effecient operations overall. This is a classic phenomenon found in piecework shops such as garment factories of old. You would end up with lots of sleeves at the end of the week but no shirts! 

It was not a simple decision, but sales people were placed on a salary which was equal to the amount they would have earned under the commission-based plan if they were hitting their targets. This gave them a level income, which allowed them to better manage their personal finances and gain acceptance for the changes. 

A notable result of this new pay plan was that sales people relaxed in front of customers, often telling them that they were not being paid commission. The entire customer engagement became one with the whole team, rather than an individual highly motivated to keep total control of the interaction. The team then worked together to best meet customers’ needs. Gone was any manipulation of pricing, discounts and delivery times based on the individual’s compensation.

Dramatic Results

As a result of the new sales processes that were implemented, the company’s revenue and market share doubled in the year following the implementation of the new system. And although the revenue doubled, the total wages and expenditures on sales stayed almost exactly the same. Average sales cycle times decreased from 270 days to 90 days, and the rate of new customer acquisition tripled. Along with these financial impacts, the company experienced unexpected improvements in employee morale, smoother interactions between sales and operations, and deeper customer engagements as evidenced by larger, enterprise-wide deployments.

Key Success Metrics

  • Sales Nearly Doubled
    • From $32M to $60M
  • Average Sales Cycle Time Reduced
    • From 270 days to 90 days
  • Sales Team Wages Remained Constant
    • From $980K to $985K
  • Number of MSI’s Increased 250%
    • From 16/week to 40/week
  • New Customer Acquisition Tripled
    • From 3/month to 10+/month

 Closed versus Open

In my work as a Lean coach, I find that virtually every new situation starts out with the same sort of reaction. “Yes, but we’re different. We don’t make cars. We are not mass production. We are not manufacturing. Our business has nothing to do with the examples that are out there! Moreover, while this stuff may work on our shop floor, it has nothing to do with product development, sales, human resources, IT, finance.”

Time after time we have found that when those defenses are allowed to come down,  people are able to come together to answer these questions:

  • What represents value in the eyes of our customers?
  • How can we make it flow more effectively?
  • How can we make that flow visible?
  • How can we pull it from customer demand?
  • How can we continually look for and eliminate waste?

 We find that each and every time people open up their minds, hearts, and hands to these questions, we see improvement far beyond what anyone ever thought possible. And, yes, Lean thinking works in sales.       

Written by Aubrey Meador, Lean Coach and Lean Sales Practice Manager


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